10 Under-the-Radar Players Whose NFL Draft Stock Will Skyrocket in 2014
Preseason draft rankings aren't just flawed; they're impossible. A final year of game film is the most important thing a prospect can post—more important than his size and his speed and his other scouting combine scores combined.
The preseason draft boards put together by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and other way-smarter people than myself are as accurate as they can possibly be, but even the authors of those lists would admit how much red ink they will contain at the end of the season.
Some players will fall and other players will rise to replace them. Names currently under the radar will soon be firmly on it.
There's no way to predict these things for sure, but, based on their physical tools and the situations they find themselves in, there are a few players who stick out as viable late-rising candidates.
Chime in below, and let me know whom else I overlooked.
QB Bryan Bennett, Southeastern Louisiana
There always seems to be one (if not more) FCS quarterback prospects who bully their way into the top 100 overall picks. This year, it was Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo. In previous years, it had been FBS transplants such as Delaware's Joe Flacco.
In 2014, Bryan Bennett seems the most likely candidate.
Formerly Marcus Mariota's backup at Oregon, Bennett got Southeast Louisiana to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs last season, finishing the year with more than 3,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards and 37 total touchdowns. He must improve his accuracy but otherwise has all the physical tools to succeed.
Bennett attended the Manning Passing Academy in July and created some good buzz for himself, per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com. According to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, one throw he made in particular—an 80-yarder during the passing competition—stuck out and drew praise from the oldest Manning brother, Cooper.
His combination of speed, size (6'3") and arm strength is difficult to find. If he can reel in his accuracy, Bennett might be a top-100 pick.
DE Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
Theiren Cockran has gradually gotten bigger since arriving on campus four years ago. Consequently, he has gradually gotten better too.
"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said of his weight gain, per Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally."
Now up to 255 pounds, the 6'6" defensive end has managed to maintain his quickness and is looking to build on a junior year that included 10.0 tackles for loss and a team-high 7.5 sacks. Not having Ra'Shede Hageman around to draw double teams will be difficult to cope with, but it should put Cockran in a position to improve.
With a wingspan of 6'9.5", Cockran has a similar build to that of San Francisco 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith—someone Rittenberg reports Cockran has studied. That is a romantic comparison to make, but it is not altogether impossible for Cockran to get there.
RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Explosive and consistent, Tevin Coleman is without a doubt the best running back you haven't heard of. But if he stays healthy and plays like he did last season, he won't remain in the background for long.
Coleman led the nation last year in highlight yards per opportunity, a metric collected at Football Study that measures explosiveness (explained in further depth here). Here is how Bill Connelly explained that statistical dominance in his Indiana preview:
Of the 199 FBS players with at least 100 carries in 2013, only seven averaged 8.0 highlight yards per opportunity or greater. Boston College's Andre Williams and Missouri's Henry Josey averaged 8.0, Maryland's C.J. Brown and Ohio State's Braxton Miller averaged 8.4, West Virginia's Dreamius Smith and UL-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire averaged 8.6 ... and Tevin Coleman averaged 12.0. His average was 40 percent better than the second best. He had 14 carries of at least 20 yards (only 12 players had more), and he had eight of at least 40 (most in the country). He is unlit dynamite every play he's on the field
That Coleman excels so much in the open field is impressive for a man his size (6'1", 210 lbs). Between his penchant for big plays, his frame and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, he projects as a three-down back at any level whom teams should be intrigued by.
OT Rob Crisp, North Carolina State
It all comes down to health for left tackle Rob Crisp, who was granted a medical redshirt after missing most of 2013 with a concussion. He also missed a good chunk of 2012 with a lower back injury.
When he's been able to play, though, Crisp has been as good as advertised. He was the No. 29 overall prospect in the country in 2010, started at left tackle as a true freshman that year and didn't allow a sack in 413 snaps as the right tackle in 2011 (his last full season).
At 6'7", 300 pounds, Crisp has not only the size but the mobility and the quick feet of a first-round NFL draft pick. The only thing that's holding him back is durability. On that front, head coach Dave Doeren gave an update at ACC media days, saying that Crisp is "doing well" and "working really hard," per the Pack Pride Twitter account.
DB Ladarius Gunter, Miami
Lost beneath the shadow of a porous team defense, Miami actually had a few standout players. The talent on this unit has never been the problem. The whole just never equals the sum of the parts.
But that doesn't devalue the promise Ladarius Gunter showed in his first year as a JUCO transfer last season. At 6'2", his frame is long without being too lean, and he showed well using his hands in press coverage. He is a physical player and a long-striding athlete.
A neck injury knocked him out of the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh and a shoulder injury kept him out this spring, but Gunter has vowed to be healthy for the start of fall camp. "I’m feeling pretty good right now," he told Christopher Stock of 247Sports (subscription required). "I’m on my recovery and just getting better so by the time camp comes up, I’ll be 100 percent."
Derek Stephens of CBSSports.com called Gunter "one of the more intriguing press corner prospects in the 2015 draft class," despite noting his modest rawness and his bad habit of keeping his back to the play. We'll see if he can smooth out those edges this season.
If he can, the physical (and innate coverage) tools are there for Gunter to rocket up draft boards this season.
WR Josh Harper, Fresno State
Josh Harper should not be as far under the radar as he is.
As a junior last season, he reeled in 79 catches for 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns. On a normal team, that would have made him the obvious go-to target and a potential all-conference performer. On Fresno State, however, it made him the No. 3 option.
But now Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse are gone, which should open things up for Harper to emerge as one of the best receivers in college football. Of course, Derek Carr is gone as well, which should complicate things a little bit. But Harper is good enough to get by.
He has decent size (6'1") and speed and excels most as a route-runner over the middle. He won't blow you away with any one skill, but he doesn't have a discernible weakness either. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will rely on Harper's after-the-catch ability on crossing routes, which should allow him to flirt with 100 receptions.
That type of production would be difficult for scouts to ignore.
WR Nick Harwell, Kansas
Depending on how much #MACtion you watch, Nick Harwell is either a forgotten name or a name you never knew.
The former Miami (Ohio) standout sat out last season after transferring to Kansas, but in three seasons with the Redhawks, he racked up 229 catches for 3,166 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Like Josh Harper, Harwell doesn't excel in any one quantifiable metric. He is big (6'1") but not huge and quick but not fast. His best skills are things that are harder to measure: route-running, short-area quickness and the innate ability to find a hole in a defense.
After three years displaying those skills against MAC defenses, Harwell has some NFL scouts alarmed. But if he replicates the feat against Big 12 defenses, he will have those same scouts downright intrigued.
OT Sean Hickey, Syracuse
Hickey is less under-the-radar than some of the names on this list. After a fabulous 2013 season, he considered turning pro one year early. However, when he was given a third- to fifth-round grade by the NFL Draft Advisory Board, he came back to school to help his stock.
"If I would've been a second to third (-round projection)," Hickey said at ACC media days, per Mike Huguenin of NFL.com, "you probably wouldn't be talking to me today."
It's not crazy for Hickey to think he can move into the second-round discussion. Even the late-first round is not entirely out of the picture. He has a remarkably strong upper body—per Huguenin, he can do 41 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press—and has been working on his lower-body strength this offseason. If he keeps adding weight, it will be hard to find a negative on his scouting report.
He is great at disengaging with his hands.
DE Nate Orchard, Utah
Nate Orchard is a rare physical specimen.
Players change positions from defense to offense all the time, but, typically, that move involves a lineman staying along the line or a skill player moving to defensive back.
Not often does it involve a receiver moving to defensive end.
But so is the case with Orchard, who has gained 60 pounds since arriving at Utah as a lanky, 195-pound receiver prospect. Slowly he emerged as a viable defensive player, and about halfway through the 2012 season, he began to emerge as a great one.
Orchard is a hard worker with unique athleticism for a lineman. He is able to use his speed in the pass rush and also when dropping into coverage. Against Stanford last season—a team that by some accounts had the best offensive line in college football—he had five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in an upset victory.
He will not remain under the radar for very long.
DE Shane Ray, Missouri
Last year, all the talk was about Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. This year, all the talk seems to be about Markus Golden.
But lest we forget Shane Ray.
As a sophomore last season, Ray was the fourth member of the Tigers with at least nine tackles for loss and four sacks. He also made an appearance in the top 10 of Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks List" for the craziest athletes in college football this offseason.
Here is what Feldman had to say:
The Tigers had one of the best D-lines in the country last year with bookend pass-rushing studs, but they didn't have anyone near as fast as the 245-pound Ray, who long-time strength coach Pat Ivey said is one of the most explosive athletes he's ever been around, which is a group topped by NFL star Justin Smith.
Ray has clocked a 4.44 in the 40, vertical jumps over 40 inches, broad jumps over 10 feet and bench presses over 400 pounds.
The speed and the strength are clearly there. Given his role as the No. 4 defensive end last season, so is the production.
What more could an NFL team be looking for?
Note: All recruiting info courtesy of the 247Sports composite rankings